Vetting Your Writers: Why It’s Hard to Find the Creative Needle in the Haystack of Crap

Last fall Demand Media announced they were cutting back on the number of freelancers they were paying to churn out thousands of articles for their websites. Until then they had been well known for their “content farm,” but the company decided to shift their focus to “more targeted categories and other forms of content such as slide shows, video series and feature articles.” They wanted to build on existing content and make it better rather than continue to pump out a bunch of new basic content. The move is unsurprising–at the end of the day, I feel that the quality of content is more important than the quantity, which is why it is so damn hard to find halfway decent writers.

For a while, the company I work for tasked me with hiring freelance writers to contribute original content for one of our websites (I’ve previously blogged about the vetting process and have also given some tips to freelance writers applying for blogging jobs). It was quite a learning experience, to say the least–I started with a huge pool of writers and whittled a vast majority of them down because most of them weren’t great.

Some of the biggest problems with finding quality talent include:

1. Bad writers, even if they’re free or cheap, still won’t be worth your time. If you don’t care about the quality of the piece you’re about to publish on your site and don’t mind broken or improperly sized images, numerous typos, and formatting issues, then feel free to skip this part. I, however, like having a semi-professional looking website and think shoddy work reflects poorly on the company. The amount of time I was saving by not writing an article was wasted on having to spend an hour cleaning up weaker writers’ work–fixing typos, resizing images, breaking huge walls of text into easily readable chunks, tweaking confusing sentences, etc.

2. Your expectations often won’t be met. A good pitch or a foolproof idea is easily ruined by the execution. I can’t tell you how many times I got excited by an idea proposed by one of my freelance writers, only to have the concept pretty much ruined by weak content and a poor end result. I’d try to guide the writer to a better end product by making some suggestions, but I eventually found out that poor writers, no matter how much guidance or feedback you give them, still can’t spin gold as effortlessly as a naturally gifted one. Eventually I’d cut these writers loose because although I liked their ideas, their execution was consistently lacking and it did me no good to essentially rewrite their work (see Point #1) every time to meet standards.

3. Weak writers lack a voice. Think of your favorite writers. They all have a distinct voice or tone–you could practically pick it out of a crowd or correctly attribute something they’ve anonymously written because you know it so well. Good writers have a natural voice you can quickly pick up and become attracted to. You can feel their frustration, their anger, their humor, their elation. Bad writers, on the other hand, feel stale and stilted. Every sentence feels like you’re running into a wall–it feels disjointed and impersonal. I can tell when a weak writer is unable to establish a voice and when one is trying too hard to force a voice, at which point it just comes off as fake and over the top. You can’t force natural talent.

4. Good writers can be bad, too. Writing is a difficult discipline that requires consistency, even when you don’t feel like it. I’ll be the first to raise my hand and confess to being lazy and uninspired from time to time–my guest posts go through dry spells and my personal blogs occasionally collect dust. It’s difficult, therefore, to rely on contributors for good consistent work. I had a lot of good writers who would go AWOL for a while before occasionally emerging with a good piece of content. Good writing is hard to come by, but so is frequent writing. Combine those two and you’ve practically got a mythical creature that a few rednecks have sworn they’ve seen but leaves you only partially convinced.

It’s extremely difficult to find contributors who you can trust, who won’t link out to shady sites or steal images, who know how your content is supposed to look and feel and can abide by those rules, who can bust out insightful, well-written content in a unique and compelling voice on a regular basis. You can find thousands of writers who would jump at the chance to build their portfolio and write for your site. But ask yourself whether it’s worth your time and your audience’s time to rely on mediocre or so-so content just for the sake of having it. Try to find that mythical Sasquatch writer or someone as close to it as possible, because when you do find him or her, you’ll have a rare talent indeed and your site will benefit greatly.

photo credit: t_buchtele via photo pin cc